I returned to San Francisco Ballet last night to see Sarah Van Patten as Juliet. She danced opposite Pierre Francois-Vilanoba, and as much as I love Yuri Possokhov and Yuan Yuan Tan in other roles, Van Patten-Vilanoba was the cast to catch. They were so moving and believable, in fact, that I realized that some of the ballet?s shortcomings that I had originally blamed on Helgi Tomasson?s staging were actually due to Tan?s one-note performance. The balcony scene, for instance, such a gush of unabated prettiness on opening night, became an exhilarating mixture of terror and infatuation in Van Patten?s and Vilanoba?s hands. So the potential for emotional depth was already there, in the choreography?it was just waiting for the right interpreters.

When the curtain fell on that balcony scene, the patrons in front of me sighed, ?Ah, raging teenage hormones!? Voice of Dance?s Allan Ulrich had it right: The problem with Tan is that she?s not a believable girl, whereas Van Patten was not afraid to look immature, even goofy. Her giggles with her girlfriends were not demure twitters but silly chest-heaving laughs. When she first met Romeo in the ballroom and pulled her hand away from his, teasing, you could see how ill-prepared this sheltered jokester was for a love of such intensity. In the balcony scene, she made her sudden series of pique arabesque look slightly awkward, like the tottering steps of a newborn foal. In the marriage scene, when she restrained herself from clinging to Romeo and then rushed at him again, her inability to control herself was so childlike that she actually provoked a big laugh from the audience.

Van Patten is a thoroughly naturalistic actress. When Tan made her first entrance during the scene with the nurse, bounding across the stage in that motif of ecstatic jumps, her audience-aware delivery said ?Look at me! Aren?t I pretty and sweet?? When Van Patten did the same steps they looked like a spontaneous expression of her character?s joy, which we in the audience just happened to witness. Then, too, Van Patten brought out new contrasts in the choreography. In the ballroom scene, when the musical theme for her innocence recurred, her footwork was suddenly springy, her sprightly phrasing a perfect reflection of the pizzicato strings. At other moments in the ballet, she was all lushness, using her head and shoulders with passionate abandon.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised at Van Patten?s mastery as Juliet: I?m told she first portrayed the role at 16, with the Royal Danish Ballet. What I couldn?t have anticipated was her chemistry with Vilanoba, who kissed her tenderly even during the curtain calls. Vilanoba is not one of SF Ballet?s more virtuosic or exacting male technicians, but the choreography for Romeo did not expose that, and the constant concern radiating from his big eyes made it clear why Tomasson keeps him on the roster.

Pascal Molat stole the scene again as Mercutio; Hansuke Yamamoto was fine as Benvolio, and you know the villainy will be delicious when Damian Smith is playing Tybalt. Gary Sheldon conducted, and the music was rapturous. I left feeling much more appreciative of Tomasson?s production, though I doubt I will ever admire Jens-Jacob Worsaae?s speckled sets. It?s painful to have to change your mind so quickly, but great performances have a way of educating your critical eye.

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